The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats

The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats

The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.

Please read Matthew 25:31-46.

The Parable:

a. Is this a parable, or is it a word of prophecy, an eye-opening description of a future judgment? The reference to the shepherd and the sheep and the goats gives it a feel of a parable, but the interaction between the Son of Man and the nations seems almost like an eye-witness piece of journalism. It’s interesting that this parable forms the last words of Jesus in His public ministry. His final words before the Passion and the Cross. I imagine that He would want His last public words to really pack a punch, to be especially memorable.

b. The scene in the parable as painted by Jesus is stark and dramatic. The Judge of all mankind, the Son of Man, Christ Himself, has gathered the nations of the world. “Nations” always in Scripture refers to the Gentiles, the heathen peoples. These unbelieving nations, and perhaps all the believing peoples as well,  gather around the Judge as He sits upon the judgment throne. The multitudes are then judged by how they treated the Hidden Messiah in their midst, the Lord who is somehow present with the needy ones. The person judged righteous didn’t know what they had even done to deserve God’s approval. And the cursed ones likewise were not aware of what they had done wrong. The blessed ones inherited the eternal kingdom of the Father, and the cursed ones received everlasting punishment in the eternal fire. This is kind, meek Jesus, mind you, sending people to hell.

c. One of the greatest saints of the 20th century, one of its brightest shining lights, was Mother Teresa of
Calcutta. She came to base her whole calling on this particular parable. Her vision was to serve Jesus in the poorest of the poor on the desperate streets of Calcutta, India. She sought to “satiate the thirst of Jesus by serving Him in the poorest of the poor.” Her Order, the Missionaries of Charity, literally saw God in the poor, they perceived a spiritual reality in the poor. She longed to “bring joy to the suffering heart of Jesus,” and saw the face of Jesus in the destitute and dying. To her dying breath, she held fast to the words, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” These words seemed to summarize the Gospel for her. She taught her fellow missionaries what she called “Gospel on five fingers” – You-did-it-to-me – one word for each finger. In the words of one of her biographers, she wanted her missionaries to “always remember the poor – not only to respect the dignity of the child of God in each one,  but also to realize the supernatural reality of God’s presence in each of them.

d. This is quite a compelling and dramatic story to offer as the closing chapter in His ministry. As one would guess, there is disagreement as to what it all means. Jesus seems to invite the reader/hearer to think about His words and discuss them thoroughly. On the one hand, this. On the other hand, that. On the third hand, this. On the fourth hand, that.

Interpretation #1:

a. It is the End, and Jesus gathers the Gentiles, those outside of the Faith, and He is going to execute judgment. This parable is often called the Judgment of the Multitudes. How will He judge those heathen peoples who have not heard the Gospel, who don’t know about Jesus, or who because of culture or upbringing don’t truly understand the Christian alternative? Those heathen who have understood and rejected the Lord and lived an intentionally evil life is one thing, but this is entirely different. How will Jesus judge those who haven’t truly faced the option of choosing Christ? Will He simply say, “Too bad, but you never heard of me, so to hell with you“? Or does He present an option of grace? If “love fulfills the law (Romans 13:10), perhaps Jesus in this parable is explaining that, for those who haven’t even been introduced to or acquainted with the Gospel, demonstrating love for the needy is equivalent to expressing love to God. Loving those who are in God’s image is the same as loving God. Perhaps when an unreached person is given a nudge to follow his God-given conscience and serve the downtrodden, Jesus so identifies with the needy that He accepts that compassionate act as ministering to Him. Perhaps the salvation of the heathen who innocently lived in the dark lies in fulfilling the Messianic law of love, the divine duty of compassion and mercy. Showing compassion is following the light that has been revealed, even if it isn’t the full light, even if it’s a dim light.

b. Christ so closely identifies with those who suffer in the world that He somehow attaches Himself to each sufferer. He even thinks of the sufferer as “brethren,” (v. 40) of being in the same family as Him. Jesus has adopted every needy person in the world. Jesus is present with the have-nots, the overlooked, the neglected in a spiritually meaningful way. Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer, He is familiar with pain and loneliness, He is acquainted with grief and shame. The Lord is saying that He is personally with that person in the midst of his suffering. When you care for the needy, you therefore are caring for Christ as well. When you are serving the hungry in a soup kitchen, you are also filling the plate of Jesus. When you dress the wounds of a soldier on a battlefield, you are welcoming Jesus into the foxhole with you. When you visit a prisoner in his jail cell, you’ll find the top bunk belongs to Jesus. If you offer your home to a homeless person, better make sure that bedroom has twin beds. If you offer the shirt off your back to a half-naked man on the street corner, be aware that you are clothing Jesus in His “distressing disguise.” (Mother Teresa). The miserable have captured the heart of Jesus to the extent that He joins them in their misery. He is a presence in their poverty. Jesus so closely identifies with the needy that when you care for the poor, you care for Him, and when you ignore the needy, you ignore Him, to your peril.

Interpretation #2:

Because Jesus in verse 40 called the needy in question “brethren,” there are some who believe that He is referring specifically to His disciples in their neediness. So Jesus is talking about judging people based on how they treated Christian believers. Jesus is saying that He is present in the lives of believers through His Holy Spirit, and in caring for needy believers, people actually care for Christ. Christ is hidden in each believer, the Hidden Messiah. By mistreating disciples of Jesus, or by neglecting their needs, people will be judged accordingly. By ignoring the Christians who are suffering, people ignore Christ Himself, and are liable to judgment. Certainly in the early Church and in many eras thereafter, Christians were often overlooked, were in the company of the have-nots, and were persecuted for their belief in Jesus. In this interpretation, Jesus is saying that, when it comes to His disciples, He will always have their back. Jesus is telling the Gentiles that they will be judged according to how they treat the suffering Christian in their midst. By ignoring the needs of the believers, they were, in the eyes of Jesus, guilty of criminal negligence.

Interpretation #3:

This gathering of the nations around the judgment throne includes everybody, the righteous and the unrighteous, the heathen and the faithful. The faithful in particular are going to be judged by how the Faith has been demonstrated in daily life. You can tell a good tree by its good fruit. (Matt. 7:17-20). Faith without works is dead. (James 2:14-18). In the end, we will be judged by how we lived out our faith, how we imitated the spirit and life of Jesus. If we serve the needy, hence Jesus, we will be saved. If we ignore the needy, thus ignoring Jesus, we will be liable for punishment, not really saved in the first place. The Lord expects a lifestyle of mercy in order to accurately reflect His heart, in order to reveal that His Spirit has affected and transformed your life. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matt. 5:7).

Interpetation #4:

One wonders just who the sheep and the goats represent in this parable/prophecy. Many believe that, because both the sheep and the goats call Jesus “Lord,” they must all be believers sitting in judgment. It does seem unlikely that an unbeliever would call Jesus “Lord,” unless one takes the view that this scene is the Final Judgment when everyone sees Jesus for who He truly is, the Lord of the Universe, and everyone in the world bows the knee and acknowedges that to be true. But this parable doesn’t actually say this is the Final Judgment, so it could be a lesser judgment day when Jesus wants to clean house. He wants to separate the true believers from the false believers. It’s not unlike the moment in Matthew 7:21-23 when many people who say “Lord, Lord” will not be able to enter the kingdom. So, could this parable be about the Lord separating the weeds from the wheat (another parable in Matthew 13:24-30), the wheat from the chaff in the household of God? Many believe that God’s judgment begins in the church (1 Peter 4:17), and this parable may be illustrating that fact.

Interpretation #5:

Who do the needy people represent in this parable/prophecy? It could be anyone who is poor and needy. It could be the Christian believer who is needy, since Jesus called the needy people His “brethren.” Here’s another idea… the needy person could be the Jews who are in need. Jesus indeed calls them “brethren,” and why couldn’t He be referring to His fellow Jews? Jesus is Jewish, His family is Jewish, His religious and cultural brethren are all Jewish. So perhaps this parable is about how people will be judged by how they treat the needy Jew in their midst.They are, after all, literally Jesus’ brethren.

Son of Man:

This term was carefully chosen by Jesus in this parable. Son of Man is taken directly from Daniel 7:13-14, and rabbinic sources state that it refers to the Messiah, a heavenly person in human form…  “I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.”  Son of Man was a messianic term, and was the favorite self-reference of Jesus in the Gospels, used by Him over 80 times. Son of Man is used by Jesus to identify intimately with all people through His incarnation. As this Son of Man, Jesus claimed to represent all humanity before God, at one with all flesh and blood. Son of Man could easily mean Son of Everyman. Except the Son of Man is also supreme over all creation and given authority over all people on earth. The Son of Man is one of us, and yet He most certainly is not merely one of us. He is the eternal King. No wonder the High Priest tore his robe when Jesus called Himself the Son of Man in his presence. No wonder the Sanhedrin erupted with indignation when Jesus referred to Himself as the Son of Man during their confrontation. By outrageously claiming to be the messianic Son of Man, Jesus revealed His true nature and signed His own death warrant.


When Jesus refers to hell, which He does surprisingly often in the Gospels, it is translated from the Greek word Gehenna (eg, Matt. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28). Gehenna is the Greek version of the Hebrew name of a particularly evil valley near Jerusalem, Ge-Hinnom. This was the pagan site where Ahaz and Mannasah sacrificed their children to the god Moloch. (2 Kings 23). Ge-Hinnom was the place of unholy fire. When King Josiah started his rule, he dismantled and destroyed that evil place as an aspect of his spiritual reformation in his land. Ever since, that site was used as the city’s garbage dump, where the city dwellers threw dead animals and burned their trash. Gehenna was a place known to everyone as a place of continuous fires and smoke, and it came to symbolize torment, torture, and eternal fire. Gehenna was the symbol of judgment and punishment of the wicked with its unquenchable fire. In this parable, Jesus is sending the cursed ones to Gehenna, “the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his demons.” (v. 41).

Going Further:

  1. Which interpretation do you think is most true? Why? Why not?
  2. In there another interpretation that you would like better than these three? Why?
  3. Is it hard to think of Jesus so apparently cold-hearted, sending some people to the eternal fire for something they didn’t know to do? Or does everybody have a conscience, thus there is no excuse?
  4. Is it overly generous for Jesus to judge as righteous people who didn’t even know they were doing the right thing?
  5. Why did Jesus choose to be hidden in the needy, knowing that the consequences were so profound?
  6. If Jesus is, as so many of us believe, gracious, merciful, eminently fair, does that mean there is no excuse for sins of neglect and omission?